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New Connecticut DCF team to oversee education system for incarcerated teens

·4 min read

A new unit within the Department of Children and Families will revamp how Connecticut oversees the education of hundreds of children who are detained in the state’s juvenile justice system each year.

The new unit will connect and oversee communication between the public agencies and private contractors involved in educating children either participating in juvenile justice programs or being held in detention centers, from those children’s home school districts to the providers who run residential programs across the state for accused kids.

The effort is designed to bolster academic support and success, important factors in keeping young people out of trouble.

The group will do that by tracking, analyzing and managing the success of children as they move between arms of the state educational system both in and out of custody, the officials who crafted the plan told the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee on Thursday afternoon.

“A lot of kids are getting lost as they transition because each part of the process focuses their attention on their part ... and that’s where the gaps start to come up,” DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes said Thursday.

To plug those gaps, the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee recommended early this year — and state lawmakers mandated this summer — that the state review its current network of education providers for juvenile offenders and craft a plan to set up a new centralized unit within DCF to better track how those children’s educations are managed.

“This includes providing smooth transitions to and from the community, including the ability to access consistent high school-based curriculum and programming across systems offering specialization and expertise, and holding the entire system accountable for the students,” the group’s report concluded. “Improving education for this population, and ensuring their ability to stay on track to receive their high school diploma, is a vital way to providing a path for success in life after release.”

This year just over 400 juveniles have been admitted to the state’s series of juvenile justice programs, which include programs from low-security community residential centers to traditional incarceration in Hartford or Bridgeport jails, according to the group’s review.

Although that represents one third of the total admissions to those programs two years ago, most of these students need special education services and are " typically over age and under credit,” already performing multiple grade levels below where they should be, the review noted.

Most in that population are 15- to 17-year-old boys of color and they stay in detention, on average, 11 to 25 days, during which time they receive educational services starting the first day after they arrive so that they do not have a large break in learning, the group reported.

But those transitions are fraught because it can be difficult to exchange information between those children’s home district and the program they’re entering, both when they first enter the justice system and then again when they return to their home district and should receive credit for their work in detention, officials said.

“In the middle of transferring kids, moving from district to facilities, clinical and emotional support information gets lost because there was no data system that captured it all and kept it in a kind of archival situation where people had it at their fingertips at the time of admission. That’s what we’re hoping to correct,” said DCF Deputy Commissioner Michael Williams, who will oversee the administrator in charge of the new unit.

The new group will be led by a “Chief of Education Services” who will oversee a team of about 25 when the program becomes fully operational next fall, according to the finalized plan. The team will include IT professionals to help manage the data flow between all the providers and 20 so-called “transition specialists” to track the credits students receive in detention and ensure their home districts are prepared to provide the necessary supports when they return to school.

The new unit also will compile and review performance data from each of the providers to better track how successful students are in their various programs.

The biggest obstacle for the group will be the information sharing itself, both technically — some records are still literally on paper — and legally — federal student privacy laws and agency rules designed to protect personal information will need to be untangled through inter-agency agreements to allow the sharing needed to manage the program, the group’s report noted.

DCF will be recruiting an administrator to run the new unit this fall and will fill out the rest of its staff and build out its new IT system throughout next year to launch the program in full by October 2022, Dorantes said.

“The very nature of developing this administrative entity is to be able to identify where there are ebbs and flows in the process that are inconsistent with students being successful,” Dorantes said.

Zach Murdock can be reached at zmurdock@courant.com.